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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

First-Year Revelations: English Comp, Conclusion

I worked for hours on my essay, describing a straight-backed, wooden chair from every possible angle and going into suggested uses for same. Every time I counted, it took longer; I kept forgetting the count. (Today, a few clicks on a keyboard and the exact count is available to me, but not then.) I had taken written notes, of course, as I meditated on the chair. Now, it was time to type it up. Again, no computers in those days so a portable typewriter was used, along with a lot of little rectangles of correcting paper to slip in when a word had been incorrectly spelled. No automatic check for spelling either; that’s what the thick desk dictionary was for. I reached for it frequently. I just wanted to do things right. It was my first university English composition. In fact, I wanted to be sure my professor didn’t think I was lazy or trying to cheat on the word count so I didn’t count those words of less than three letters either. There had been some rule about that when counting our typing words per minute, but it escaped me. No siree, I would turn in a paper that showed I had done a lot of work on it.

As I set my paper on the pile of essays, I was surprised to see the wide variety in the number of pages of each composition. Perhaps I should have double-spaced? Some had been handwritten but most looked like mine, only shorter.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” barked out the professor while thumping his fist on the stack of papers, “if your paper is not in this pile, leave the room. I don’t care if you have a paper-hungry dog at home. I don’t care if your baby sister threw up on the pages so there wasn’t enough left to read but your mother has taken them to the cleaners to see what can be done. I don’t care if you had to go to the hospital for emergency surgery last night so didn’t have time, while conscious, to write about the chair. Do you get it? I don’t accept excuses. You may leave the room and try again tomorrow. You’ll need to ask a classmate what the assignment is for tomorrow so ask someone you know pays attention.” Sadly, two students slunk from the room, faces bright crimson.

I don’t know why they neglected to write about the chair but it is possible this was their first day. The registration process was so cumbersome that not everyone made it to classes the first day. Certainly, the rest of us got the picture, no excuses. I groaned, inwardly, when the prof let us all know that the two had just earned their first failing grade on English homework. I felt so sorry for the students.

Lifting up the pile of homework papers, the professor began to quickly leaf through them, separating them into two piles. Next, we watched with growing anxiety as he took out his red pen, making a quick stroke at the top of the first page. “Mr. Butler:” A male student responded. “You have failed this paper.”

“But, Sir, you haven’t even read it?”

“No, I haven’t and I can’t. Your handwriting is atrocious, Mr. Butler. I won’t waste my time trying to figure out what you have written. If you don’t have time to write legibly, I suggest you contact one of the students in the typing pool and pay for it to be typed.” From that point until the end of that first pile, we heard the same pronouncements. Indeed, the pages did look pretty sloppy, with words crossed out instead of erased, on many of the papers I could see as they were now being stacked in the F pile at the corner of his desk. I was so relieved to have taken nearly as long to cleanly type my paper as to write it.

Moving to the second of the two originally separated stacks of homework, the teacher did another culling; only one small stack was put to the side this time. “Obviously, some of you did not remember how many words this composition should be? I can look at this page and know there are not 500 words on it. The number was not the upper limit like some kind of a contest, Ladies and Gentlemen. It was your assignment to get your composition to that number and not over it.” We watched the stroke of the red pen once again as each name was called out.

“I have left this one example for last because it is entirely possible that the student has found her way to the wrong class. In fact, I am nearly certain this is the case and suggest that you, Miss Sojourner, leave this room immediately and sign up for Bonehead Math.” To my utter horror the professor was holding my paper high above his head and shaking it. I wanted to throw up and kept swallowing as fast as I could to try to get control. “Did I not say 500 words? Did I not suggest that this was not, in fact, Bonehead Math class yesterday when you raised this issue of not being able to count to 500? What is this you have put on my desk? It must be, at least, 800 words.”

“Sir, I asked about counting because my typing teacher told us not to count the words that…” I didn’t get to finish my shaky explanation.

“So, now, Miss Sojourner thinks she is back in high school typing class? Count… the… words… and… come… up… with… 500… words. Not 300, not 800… 500! Is that clear?” We nodded our heads but no one spoke. Seemed like there was no excuse for anything one might do wrong in this class. I fought back the tears as his red pen made the stroke on my hours of work, F. He wouldn’t even read what I’d written. I’d never in my life failed any English homework or test.

One lesson I learned that day was never to assume what I had been told by one teacher was the right thing to do for another. I soon learned this teacher shows one persona in class and another in his office. After this crushing humiliation, I determined to never guess what was okay with him. But, from this first mistake, I also learned not to inquire of him in class. If any other student wanted the question answered he would need to do what I did…. go to his office and ask. He was a very friendly and interested prof in that little room. He gladly answered my questions and encouraged me to relax when I wrote so it would flow more naturally, etc.

The English professor never came right out and said this, but it seemed to me that he behaved the way he did because he thought that the vast majority of kids were not in that class out of interest but it was required. He expected a hard time from the students who didn’t like writing so he got the jump on their potential behavior by acting like a tyrant from the first day. There was no fooling around in his class and few students ever dropped out. We learned so much from this man; many of us were sad to leave his classroom on that final day of the Fall Quarter. All of us wanted to sneak back the first day of the new Winter Quarter to see what would happen to those poor, unsuspecting saps just entering the teacher’s lair.

This lesson of 45 years ago is coming full circle. I am a member of Faith Writers, participating in a weekly writing challenge with a 750-word limit for each article. The topic of the article is given every Thursday and, so far, they have not asked for anything on a wooden chair. This year I have been studying books on writing. Guess what I have learned? An editor/agent will not read even the cover letter for a manuscript submitted to them if it doesn’t totally meet the publisher’s exact requirements… font style, size and a lot of other details. Hey, they don’t care if it took you ten years to write the book, they won’t read even one page. Good thing I was in this man’s English class early in my adult life!

So many times when things seem unfair or we are not treated as we think we should be, we get mad at God. If I’m doing what God wants me to do, then why doesn’t everything go right for me? If I am really trying hard to do what I should, why shouldn’t I be given the benefit of the doubt if I make a mistake? Well, dear Reader, as in the above story of a hard revelation for Sojourner, sometimes we have lessons to learn that are not learned any other way. University was like cold water in the face a lot of the time that first year. They wanted us to grow up and realize life in the adult world was more than just freedom from parental control. Toughen up, Kid!, seemed to be the motto. Paying attention to detail is a matter of successful adult life. Not just going ahead with what we imagine could be the right thing to do. It just doesn’t cut it in the working world. Finding a way to get the information needed is the key, not complaining because I wasn’t handed the information at the time I would have expected. You can be totally sure I never forgot the above lessons. I had no idea they would come in handy when I took up writing so many years later! God knew, though, and began my training early. I am so grateful that God knows just what I need and the best time to teach me!

****Another First-Year Revelation... Coming Tomorrow

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